What are the major arguments in the abortion debate?

Thomas Fuller

Earlier this year the United States Supreme Court reversed their 1973 decision on Roe v Wade, removing the federal right to abortion. There are a variety of opinion on the subject. However, many of the arguments put forth by pro-choice activist often reside in the practical applications of the prohibition of abortion, arguing that a prohibition of abortion does not stop abortions, but rather makes them less safe. The argument rests in the legality of abortion, rather than the morality of the action itself. So, I thought it prudent to recap some of the formal arguments put forth by ethical thinkers, focusing on the consideration of whether a foetus has an alienable right to life.

“Conceptualistic” arguments

Conceptualistic arguments take a fundamental assumption that a foetus is intrinsically valuable, and it has a right to life in virtue of the entity that it is rather than its relation to an already existing person. This view often stems from religious belief, such as that of Catholicism; for instance, the church has held that life begins at conception. (Riga 1987) Thus, to abort a foetus is morally on par with murder. Pro-choice advocates counter the argument by relating personhood to living persons rather than foetus, which they do consider to have said intrinsic rights. (Tooley 1972) Although there is no clear singular definition of what constitutes a “person” in philosophy; it is taken that a necessary condition for personhood is consciousness – which a foetus does not possess. Thereby, if a foetus is not a conscious person, and only those who are conscious have a right to life, a foetus cannot have the right to life.

Potentiality arguments

Arguments from potentiality stem from the idea that although a foetus is not yet a person and thus it is not obvious whether it deserves a right to life, we ought to respect its right to life because it has the potential to become a person. (Manninen 2007) The pro-choice camp has many replies. One of which is grounded in the idea that it is absurd to grant a potential person the rights of an actual person. Boonin (2003) writes that’ this is a logical error on behalf of the pro-life side to believe that we can make such a jump; we do not allow children the right to vote just because they have the potential to vote in the future’. While the debate is vast in. nature, the pro-life advocates contend there is difference between active and passive potential, where a foetus has active potential for personhood. (Carson 2006)

Thomson’s violinist thought experiment

The pro-choice side has not presented any positive arguments of their own; only critiquing and rejecting those put forward by the anti-abortion advocates. However, this argument is a very powerful tool for those wishing to show the permissibility of abortion as it also takes as true everything the pro-life side wants. Thomson’s argument assumes that a foetus is the type of entity that deserves a right to life. However, as we shall see, she argues that abortion is permissible all the same.

Thomson (1971) starts the thought experiment by asking us to imagine waking up on an operating table next to a stranger. We’re told that the stranger is a violinist of world-renown. However, the violinist has contracted a fatal disease that requires clean blood to be pumped into their system constantly otherwise they will die. You have been kidnapped and had your circulatory systems conjoined. So, were you to get up and leave the hospital the violinist would surely die. The doctor tells you that this not a permanent situation and will last only nine months. So, Thomson (1971) asks us can the individual leave the hospital knowing this will kill the violinist or must they remain; forced to carry out their term. Obviously, this situation is an analogy for the experience of a pregnant person.

With Thompson concluding that it would be impermissible of the state to force the individual to remain attached to the violinist; just as it is impermissible to force someone to take a pregnancy to term. The ‘pro-life’ has stated the analogy does not hold up; apart form instances of rape, pregnancy is a situation one enters willingly. Thus, no kidnapping has taken place. They, instead, claim that a person’s right to life must be the most fundamental right of all and can never be outweighed by a person’s right to self-determination. 

Policy Recommendations

Although some may be swayed by the arguments presented, an action’s legality is not always motivated by its morality in isolation. A politician reading these arguments could come to believe that abortion is morally impermissible, yet still vote in a manner that keeps it legal. This could be motivated by a wish for harm reduction for pregnant individuals. If a pregnant person is determined to get an abortion the procedure’s legal status may not deter them. However, were they to undergo the operation through unofficial means, their chance of death in the procedure increases drastically. Therefore, the politician could be guided, perhaps by utilitarian principles, to keep the most amount of “people” out of harm’s way. Thus, legal considerations concerning abortion stem beyond immediate moral considerations of the action itself.


Boonin, David. 2003. A Defense of Abortion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Carson, Strong. 2006. “Preembryo Personhood: An Assessment of the President’s Council Arguments.” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 27 (433).

Manninen, Bertha Alvarez. 2007. “Revisiting the argument from fetal potential.” Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2 (7).

Riga, Peter J. 1987. “The Vatican’s Instruction on Human Life.” The Linacre Quarterly 54 (3): 16-21.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. 1971. “A defense of abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1): 47-66.

Tooley, Michael. 1972. “Abortion and Infanticide.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 2 (1): 37-65.

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